On David Hockney’s Retrospective

On David Hockney’s Retrospective

His is a prolific career. Decades of experimentation with different media resulted to a versatility that makes him one of Britain’s most celebrated living artists. A pioneer of British pop art together with Richard Hamilton, David Hockney is one colorful character hard to be missed.

In his retrospective mounted at the Centre Pompidou last summer, we are introduced to the  life and work of the unconventional, self-aware artist whose artistic exploration brings anew fresh insights at ways of seeing. His time at the Royal College of Art marked questions on homosexuality at a time when it was legally frowned upon in England. We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961), whose child-like style was influenced by French artist Jean Dubuffet, shows his early interest on depicting sexuality in art. His early works are profoundly abstract with literary leanings, subtly hinting at his own self painted obscurely on the canvas.

His move to sunny California in the mid 60s put him at the center of a highly hedonistic culture. He was fascinated by the abundance of pools and made a series out of it. Portrait of an Artist (pool with two figures, 1972) captures an unexpressive Peter Schlesinger, his former partner, clad in red suit looking over a man swimming towards him. The scene gives off an incredibly relaxing but menacing feel – the nonchalance in Peter’s gaze contrasts vaguely with the clear, transparent pool and the lush background. While in Pool and Steps (1971), the emptiness is felt almost strangely. This series of pool paintings is more about the transparence of the water which draws us closer to it. The ripples as it reflect sunlight conjure imageries of leisure under the unforgiving heat.

Hockney would admire Picasso at the Tate exhibition in 1960 for his mastery of different styles. He himself is a man always trying new ways of making. His series aptly named Joiners are collages laid out in grid. Photographs are suspended in time but by juxtaposing cutouts of frames shot at different times, a once static portrait becomes a dynamic piece. The resulting image agitates more than it confuses. Pearblossom Hwy (1986) confronts the viewer with the subjectivity that befalls a journey – the driver focusing on the unmissable signs on one hand and the passenger marveling at the beautiful scenery on the other.

His landscapes of England’s countryside propose another way of seeing. It alludes to Chinese style landscapes of immersing the viewers, letting them experience it as though they were in it – a clear contradiction to the Western style of one looking in from a fixed point. The vibrant colors in Nichols Canyon (1980) is so brilliantly eye-catching that the image almost pops out from its two-dimensional realm. While scale is highly relative, Hockney mastered perspective in Garrowby Hill (1998) that makes one conscious of the massiveness of the trees despite the apparent flat depiction. Landscapes are said to be dead yet looking at his works, landscapes are very much alive, breathing in aggressive, sharp colors, inviting us to look closer.

With more than 150 works on exhibit, we are invited to approach Hockney with openness to the possibilities of surprise. If we only dare look hard enough could we see fully the depth of what is in front of us.